Guest blog – The Willow Butterfly by filbert cobb

filbert cobb is a regular commenter on this blog and has been since its early days (since February 2012). I suspect filbert cobb may not be his real name. He has produced three delightful guest blogs here in the past; Leopoldius, 14 November, 2018, Remember not to Forget,  30 September 2016 and The Sunken Garden, 25 September 2014.

Incongruous: adjective, not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings or other aspects of something 

When I was a very very very small boy in fact smaller even than that I lived in north Camberwell in South London although I would have preferred Ludlow in south Shropshire but my Mum was in St. Giles’ hospital when I was born and as became Custom and Practice nobody took any notice of what I wanted and we went on living in Camberwell upstairs at my Grandparents’ yellow-brick terraced house in Cowan Street until I was three. 

I can only recall a few things from that far back: the Sibilant Sound of the gas fire in the kitchen; standing on a chair at the kitchen window and waving at the girls working in Watkins’ Bible Factory, who waved back; the sandpit in the playground that was subsumed later by Burgess Park that you couldn’t play in because it was a dog latrine; that I wasn’t allowed to play with the kids in the house next to the bomb-site because they were “dirty”; Uncle Joe from across the street who in his parlour kept a tank full of Black Mollies and a wife called Doll and who had a thin fag-end permanently waggling on his lower lip and black Brylcreemed™ hair that often had a loose strand hanging down in front of his grimy spectacles and who was a Lorry-Driver who knew Everything like all lorry-drivers did and who always called me “Mate” and who goosed my Great-Grandma at every opportunity and always called her “Marfa”. 

Despite having been brought up in Camberwell and played in its streets and swung from its lamp-posts my Mum obviously didn’t think much of it and couldn’t wait to leave. We could have been shunted off down the Brighton Road to Crawley like many other families but my Dad had a job exercising Authority over White Fish so we could afford a house with Roses and Pinks and Almond Blossom in Kent but for some perverse reason we then journeyed back and forth every fortnight by bus, train or car on Saturdays to Cowan Street for what seemed like Forever like Forever does when you are a child. You might have thought acquiring a Morris 12 would open up the North Downs and the Weald to exploration – but it didn’t. Instead of the New Cross end of Camberwell I got to know Camberwell Green and its approaches through Penge and Dulwich and Denmark Hill where Freddie Mills the Boxer lived and the big junction with traffic lights that people ignored as they shot out of Coldharbour Lane near the Big Important Hospital on the telly where Grandma died in Black and White. 

What my Grown-Ups found to talk about for hours on end every fourteen days in the steamy kitchen remains a complete mystery – but they did. Me and my brother were consigned to the cold front room with the Galleon and the Aspidistra to read last week’s papers or see how fast we could get the Singer treadle sewing machine going before someone came down The Passage and told us to stop playing on That because you’ll Break it. Before we traipsed back to West Wickham we would have a huge Tea of tea and tinned salmon and pickled beetroot sarnies and tinned peaches and pears and condensed milk all of which Grandma hoarded in Huge Quantities in a Big Green Cupboard that was replenished with Stuff she bought “dahn The Lane” in East Street market where the stalls sagged under the weight of goods from lorries that queued in the early morning so that Stuff could fall off of them and the Traders could keep up a Show all day juggling plates and linen and cutlery and tinned food and fresh fruit and vegetables. I suspect the hoarding was a legacy from The Blitz when you didn’t know when you would be able to get What or whether you would have a House to put it in when you got it so you got Whatever you could get whenever you could get it whether or not you needed it Then. The Lane smelt of Earth because washed potatoes and carrots hadn’t been invented and Fish because fish smell of fish and it was the busy bustling Centre of the Community for many people but there were other attractions. On the way back up Albany Road in the fog to the Old Kent Road to catch the ’Bus to New Cross at the Dun Cow opposite the Thomas a Becket I had to be dragged away from their open doors intrigued by the Jolly-Sounding Times that were being had within to the vamped piano accompaniment of My Old Man and Underneef the Aaarchez and the Sickly Wafting Fug of Weights and Seniors and St Bruno and the Sour Caramel smell of Brown Ale that made me want to try it All long before I was Old Enough because we didn’t have Sickly Wafting Fug or Jolly-Sounding Times or Brown Ale in our house in Kent. 

But the pubs with the enticing interiors were eventually Obliterated by the construction of Burgess Park with its constructed lake. This was all part of the planned post-War deconstruction of much of Camberwell and it’s surprising how far this progressive planning progressed during the War years when the Abercrombie Commission was planning to replace Old Slums with New ones some of which Already need replacing Again. The Luftwaffe were heavily involved too and as early as 1917 Them Jerries killed a lot of Camberwellians when a large bomb fell from a Zeppelin while it was bombing Sheffield and destroyed three houses and a fish and chip shop and a doctor’s surgery in Calmington Road. Later – only a few streets away in July 1944 – they tried to kill Grandma with a V1 as she was walking home from work at Mrs Koch’s bakery on the corner of Bagshot Street and Smyrk’s Road. I always thought a whole Doodlebug to herself was a bit excessive just because she worked behind the counter in a Jewish family’s baker shop so it was probably also a reprisal for Grandad’s black-market back-yard Rhode Island Red egg-business single-handedly thwarting their efforts to break the Londoners’ morale but they missed Grandma although the blast was close enough to blow her false teeth out and instead flattened acres of nice Edwardian terraced houses in Jardin Street and Scarsdale Road that were replaced by “Them Prefabs” and the kids’ playground that were themselves replaced by the green green grass of Burgess Park. In later years I would gaze in the window of A S Gillott’s bike shop in Southampton Way at purposeful elegant racing frames I couldn’t afford or queue in Bill Rudd’s deterministic Fishing Tackle Shop for fat squirming maggots that I could but today I would be disappointed because those Places and their People are not there anymore. All Gone, like Cowan Street – replaced by a nice car park for people to burn cars in after they have dumped their paraphernalia in the green green grass of the Raling Green Lung. 

Ho-Hum – the Camberwell I knew was not a place of great beauty but I did like the Friendly Feel of it and its People and there were very Grand Parts I didn’t know of but That was Then and This is Now and We are Where we Are and it is What it Is and whether I like it or not now and so as not to risk losing my Lingering Affection for its former smoggy grubby grimy yellow-brick street-marketed bomb-damaged self I won’t be going back to Camberwell but I shall just hold the Memories of Market Stalls and Pubs and Prefabs and chickens and Black Mollies and look at some old photographs now and again because Never Going Back is my way of shielding my Nostalgia from Time’s Arrow. 

But Camberwell has entered collective consciousnessnesses whether we are conscious of it or not and is the Happy Home of many iconic references to a rare random sighting of a Thing of Great Beauty. It took me a long time to make this connection even though it was often right under my nose. An Aunty kindly gave me as a Christmas present a box of letter paper and envelopes so that I could write thanking her for my Christmas present that she had just sent me in possibly the world’s first example of a circular-referencing gift. The paper was made by Samuel Jones Ltd of Southampton Way whose claim to Fame was making noncurling gummed paper that didn’t curl up. So it was a Great Pleasure to write my Thank-You letters because I liked being Important enough to have my own fountain pen and my own paper to write on and my own envelopes to address especially when they didn’t curl up when you licked the gummy bit on the back. On the box-lid was printed a colourful colour picture of a colourful butterfly and the legend “CAMBERWELL BEAUTY”. My child mind didn’t associate the words with the picture and just thought this was a curious name for the paper, like BASILDON BOND, because in my child mind the juxtaposition of CAMBERWELL and BEAUTY was Incongruous even though I didn’t know what juxtaposition or incongruous meant because although I had the pen, the paper and the envelopes I didn’t have the dictionary. And I had no idea who Vanessa Antiopa was, either. 

But had I lived in a different Era I may have thought differently. Once upon a time Camberwell was a small village in Surrey with woods and meadows and streams and minor rivers that flowed north and east into the Thames across several extensive marshes. Maybe the Effra, the Earl’s Sluice, the Neckinger and the Peck were once babbling brooks – that really does stretch the Powers of Imagination but I like to imagine it anyway because that’s what Imagination is for. There were numerous small farms and hamlets with thatched roofs and barns and leafy lanes in one of which two large distinctive and unusual butterflies were seen in August 1748 and whomsoever saw them decided they were worth capturing. According to Benjamin Wilkes, whose profession was ‘painting of History Pieces and Portraits in Oyl’ and and who was also an accomplished entomologist who authored The English Moths and Butterflies in 1749, these two specimens of the “Willow Butterfly” were “taken” near Camberwell in Surrey – but it’s not clear whether Wilkes “took” them or not or whether someone else “took” them then took them to him or to where he then took them to fix and draw and paint them because what are the Odds that the first rare summer migrant Willow Butterfly ever to visit London would flutter by Someone who Actually Knew what it was as they were having a quiet Wander down a country lane and who just happened to have one of those Big Nets handy? 

Wilkes would have known the other names of this large and striking butterfly common as it was in North America, northern Europe and Scandiwegia but not resident and rarely found in England so that his find was possibly the first one even if he didn’t actually find it himself but it seems odd that Wilkes called it Willow Butterfly and not Mourning Cloak – but he didn’t. After Wilkes’ find no-one struck lucky again for a long long time and it wasn’t until 1766 that Moses Harris, writing about Wilkes’ specimens and apparently reproducing his illustrations, reported the occurrence as occurring in Cool Arbour Lane near Camberwell. A 1746 map of the River Effra and Lambeth Marsh shows an area labelled as “Cold Harbour” and south of it a thoroughfare called Camber Well Lane. Cold Harbour, Coldharbour, Cool Arbour, Camber Well – well all these names point to a location somewhere around Brixton and Camberwell on what later became known as Coldharbour Lane. Harris recognised the rarity of the “Willow Butterfly” and described it as “one of the fcarceft Flies of any known in England … their Caterpillar and Chryfalif is to us entirely unknown and their food a mere conjecture.” Then, with a few strokef of hif pen, Mofef Harrif dubbed it “the Grand Surprize. Or Camberwell Beauty”. He didn’t know it but thif waf to be a mafterftroke of brand imaging. 

As far as I can tell the Camberwell Beauty has never been seen again alive in Camberwell since that Auspicious day in 1748. Samuel Jones chose it for their Butterfly Brand and emblem and it allowed them to demonstrate their superior methods for complex colour printing on its Maroonish wings with their Custardy borders and Iridescent Blue spots and although they might have considered the Dingy Skipper for the purpose I think they made a Wise Choice despite or because of the very slim chance of anyone seeing a real Camberwell Beauty in Camberwell. Or anywhere.  

But their Brand gave this accidentally touring creature a special status as Camberwell’s enduring link with Beauty in Times Past. Samuel Jones commissioned an huge Muriel depicting the Camberwell Beauty in coloured tiles and set it floodlit high on their factory frontage – when the factory was demolished in the 1980s Someone cared enough to have the Muriel transferred, happily with the tiles in the correct order, to the end-wall of a former public bath-house in Wells Way where it can be seen today next to an entrance to Burgess Park not far from the Bridge to Nowhere across the Canal that Was. The butterfly theme continues as a motif at the Old Kent Road entrance to the Park; as wrought iron gates on Camberwell Green; as the Butterfly Walk shopping mall; as Muriels on a building façade on Denmark Hill and under a railway arch in Camberwell New Road. Because of these and other artefacts many people associate Camberwell with its eponymous Butterfly and I find it Uplifting that a lowly if impressive insect that was seen there once nearly three centuries ago and never again can have captured Imaginations for so long even without the assistance of a Pandemic and a population Desperately Seeking Solace. There were other things to celebrate – Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” was inspired by and originally titled “Camberwell Green” and there is ample competition from notables like John Ruskin, Robert Browning, Enid Blyton, Noddy, Sir Henry Bessemer, Joseph Chamberlain, Sir Robert Hunter, Claude Rains, Ida Lupino, William Pratt, Muriel Spark, Lord Whitty, an entire cast of modern thespians and too many notable alumni of the Camberwell College of Arts to list, a quarter of Pink Floyd, Dirty Den, Gary Rhodes, Mick McManus, Giant Haystacks, Duncan Goodhew, Kenny Sansom and Mr Whicher, who had his Suspicions there.  

But No! It was a mere creature without a backbone, a Mourning Cloak, a Cloak of Sorrow, which nobody living owns up to seeing in Camberwell although it is seen in Britain Here and There from Time to Time and there are Suspicions that it stows away in Cargoes of Timber delivered to eastern ports or in some years breezes in on favourable winds. Benjamin Wilkes may have described the first seen in England but he never heard the name “Camberwell Beauty” as poor Benjamin died from a fever just a week after completing his book and Moses Harris didn’t put its Camberwell Beauty name into print until seventeen years later so it was sheer serendipitous happenstance for Camberwell and Camberwellians that Wilkes’ specimens turned up “near Camberwell” when they did because Times Change and people Meddle – they can’t hardly help themselves building, rebuilding, demolishing, bombing, developing, redeveloping, repurposing, resetting, relocating and redrawing boundaries and since the Times of Cool Arbours and Leafy Lanes and Babbling Brooks and the Blitz and Jessie Burgess the Londoners won the Wars of the South Bank and drove the Surreyans back to Kingston on Thames and the Kentish back to Bexley and Camberwell is now part of the London Borough of Southwark and Coldharbour Lane is in Lambeth. 

The Camberwell Beauty is still Nymphalis antiopa.


9 Replies to “Guest blog – The Willow Butterfly by filbert cobb”

  1. The Camberwell Beauty is just that: a beauty. It is a common sight in much of Northern Europe in the spring but I remember the excitement when we saw our first in Finland. It seems to have been fashioned out of burgundy velvet. Exquisite.

    There are many scarce (and some quite common) creatures with names linked to the Home Counties and the South-East: Tunbridge Wells Gem, Kentish Plover, Dartford Warbler, Sandwich Tern, Brighton Wainscot, Minsmere Crimson Underwing, Lydd Beauty, etc. Given that most are very common away from the UK all the descriptors, without exception, are pretty useless as a guide to their range. I am sure there’s a better way to do this which doesn’t give the impression that we believe the world revolves around the Home Counties.

    1. Peter Marren’s book “Emperors, admirals and chimney sweepers” is well worth a read for anyone interested in the English names of butterflies and moths and where they come from. Many of the names – ‘Gothic’, ‘Saxon’, ‘Conformist’, ‘Rustic’, etc give little clue (at least to modern eyes) as to where or how the creature lives or of its appearance, but they are nevertheless very evocative and give a fascinating insight into the minds of the (mostly) gentlemen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who coined so many of them.

  2. Filbert you should write more, may be you do under a real or different name. Thoroughly enjoyed the read. I’ve seen this wonderful butterfly in Sweden, Poland, Bulgaria and once many moons ago as rapidly disappearing black dot over the Humber mud at Spurn. May be Camberwell Beauty is not a “correct” name for it but then to my mind neither is Mourning Cloak but then we wouldn’t have had Filbert’s wonderful blog. Willow butterfly or Cream Border?

    1. If it had happened just ever so slightly differently would we have had the “Lambeth Beauty” or the “Faversham Fly”? But it didn’t, fortunately. I do rather like “Cloak of Sorrow” but then I’m binge-watching Wallender so …

  3. Very Clever, Filbert. I loved the bit about Grandma’s own personal doodlebug and all very evocative of post war London.

  4. Gorgeous, get on and write the book, please. Henry Williamson (Tarka the Otter etc.) wrote a good deal about the Camberwell Beauty in The Dark Lantern, one of his Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight books. They are very good on old London, especially south of the Thames, but not as good as you. Less jokes.

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